We’ve had quite a lot of practice at being an archive: we’ve been looking after the public record for over 150 years. Most of the fundamentals of archival practice were laid out by Sir Hilary Jenkinson – our former Deputy Keeper – in ‘A Manual of Archive Administration’ in 1922.
Jenkinson wrote his manual before computers were invented. Records were always physical. The government record – the official account of decisions made by government – largely consisted of letters, memos and minutes. Other kinds of important information (such as records of births, marriages and deaths) could be compiled into ledgers. Thanks to their catalogues, archivists knew where to find the important information, and were confident they could describe and preserve what they found.
The widespread use of computers inside government has changed things radically. We have been creating a vastly greater volume of information in a raft of different formats. Sometimes there’s an analogue equivalent – for example, civil servants still produce minutes, although nowadays we usually use Microsoft Word. Email has largely taken the place of letters, although we email lots of information that would once have been expressed very differently.
Archives have had to evolve to be able to cope with new kinds of records. When we first started tackling the new and unfamiliar digital landscape, we needed a way of identifying important pieces of information and figuring out what to do with them. We realised that much of the information we cared about was encoded in some fairly standard formats: the obvious approach was to worry only about those. So we compiled a list of around 20 different file formats that we would accession and preserve – Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, PDFs, and so on.
We became a ‘first generation’ digital archive: one that adopts a traditional, paper-based approach to selecting, preserving and providing access to records and replicates it as closely as possible using digital technology. Continue reading »